PortuGOAL Figure of the Week: Ricardo Soares steadies the ship as Estoril seek salvation

The business end of the Liga Bwin season is truly upon us now with thirty rounds completed and four remaining, with plenty yet to untangle. League leaders Benfica appear back on track after an ill-timed wobble, defeating Gil Vicente this weekend to retain their four point advantage in first place.

Porto and Braga kept the title race alive by overcoming Boavista and Portimonense respectively, whilst Arouca’s bid for fifth faltered at Rio Ave, Vitória Guimarães gaining ground in that particular battle by beating Marítimo.

The relegation battle remains hotly-contested, but Estoril took a giant step away from the drama by consigning likely candidates for the drop Santa Clara to a 3-0 loss. Their coach made some bold changes to the team and they paid off handsomely, and the recently hired Estoril boss is our PortuGOAL Figure of the Week.

Well versed in the way of Primeira Liga managerial experience, Ricardo Soares seemed the ideal candidate for Estoril to turn to amid what has threatened to become a disastrous campaign for Os Canarinhos. Hopes were high this season after the team recorded an impressive 9th place finish under then boss Bruno Pinheiro, and replacing the outgoing coach with former Benfica number two Nélson Veríssimo seemed a shrewd move.

A solid start to 2022/23 soon paved way to a disastrous run of form around October time, one that would ultimately cost Veríssimo his job in February and see Soares hired. The latter indeed represented such a positive appointment after an excellent 2021/22 season of his own whilst in charge of Gil Vicente.

Soares got off to a tricky start although little blame could be left at his door, having to manage a sinking ship and without a transfer window to work with, the Portuguese coach has had to use the resources available to him, meaning attempting to coax the best out of a hugely underperforming squad.

The new coach eventually got them going with a crucial win over his old team Gil Vicente at the end of March, but the three consecutive defeats that followed that triumph has meant the threat of relegation has continued to cast a dark shadow over the club.

Sunday afternoon’s home contest with Santa Clara, another team in the battle against the drop, realistically represented a litmus test as to whether Estoril and Soares really had what it takes to avoid becoming seriously mired in the bottom three, sitting only three places above the region prior to kick off.

For his starting lineup, Soares made a few alterations, notably the bold call of benching creative spark Francisco Geraldes for a second straight match. In his stead came former Marítimo midfielder Rafik Guitane for a first start in five games, while Venezuelan forward Alejandro Marqués was recalled to spearhead the attack.

The changes made proved inspired as early as the 17th minute as Guitane and Marqués combined to open the scoring, the former’s through pass finished off confidently by the striker.

Guitane was relishing his chance to impress, a run and shot thwarted by Santa Clara keeper Gabriel Batista soon after. There was nothing Batista could do to stop a dominant Estoril in doubling the advantage in the 34th minute however, Brazilian winger Carlos Eduardo firing home from the penalty spot after the impressive Tiago Santos had been felled in the box.

Estoril were playing with a confidence scarcely displayed throughout the campaign, little better illustrated by João Carvalho’s cheekily ambitious free kick effort early in the second period that almost crept into the top corner.

Santa Clara did on occasion thereafter threaten to make a game of it but found Estoril’s Dani Figueira impenetrable. After weathering a little storm the home side quickly re-established control and ultimately capped the victory with a third goal late on. Carvalho fed the marauding Santos, whose clever flick fell into the path of substitute Rodrigo Martins, who coolly dispatched the finish.

A massive win for Estoril, one that should at the very least give them a great chance of avoiding automatic relegation, creating an eight point buffer in that regard.

Results-wise it may be a case of Soares helping Estoril to somewhat limp over the Liga Bwin maintenance line but the manner of which they dismissed an admittedly doomed Santa Clara was highly convincing. Survival will be all that Soares will have been tasked with, but after achieving that Estoril would be wise to place their future faith in a man that has already proved the wonders he can work with this level of team as they look to sail in far more serene waters in 2023/24.

By Jamie Farr